Chinese cinemas see no sign of resumption amid epidemic
Published: Feb 26, 2020 11:11 PM

Visitors watch a movie at a dome theatre in a planetarium in Lhasa, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Dec. 14, 2019. An planetarium opened its door to the public for trial operation in Lhasa on Saturday. Photo: Xinhua

After being closed for about one month due to the COVID-19 epidemic, cinemas across China still see little sign of reopening as the country maintains strict measures despite improving signs in the battle against the epidemic. 

China Film Distribution and Exhibition Organization on Sunday published a letter to all employees in the film industry, offering some advice on work resumption at cinemas, which soon became a hot topic on Chinese social media as some netizens took it as a sign that cinemas would reopen soon. 

Cinemas across China shut down one by one under the requirements of local governments in late January after epicenter Wuhan announced a lockdown. 

Many films scheduled to be shown during the Spring Festival holiday - a yearly prime time for the film market in China - were cancelled, including some award-winning foreign films like Little Women and Marriage Story. 

The Chinese box office accounted for one fourth of the global box office in 2019, which was $42.5 billion. This reportedly will shrink by at least one billion in 2020 due to the closure of Chinese cinemas at the beginning of the year. 

According to cinema employees reached by the Global Times, cinemas nationwide are far from ready to reopen despite the positive encouragement from the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Organization. 

It will be a long way to go to get government approval to reopen the cinemas, according to an employee from the Poly Film Investment Co surnamed Wang. 

Cinemas are required to provide detailed epidemic prevention and control measures, as well as an emergency plan in case of COVID infection to get the approval, Wang told the Global Times. He said the measures have to be as detailed as possible including how people buy tickets to reduce infection risk. 

"We also want to resume work as soon as possible but the epidemic does not allow it," Wang said, noting that "few companies can afford a shutdown for another month." 

According to a report by Beijing-based Top Consulting, a film industry consulting company, Chinese cinemas are expected to lose 11.5 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in box office in January and February, and there will be further losses in advertising, goods sales and cinema operation. 

The epidemic has been an unexpected problem for the already slowing Chinese film market, read the report. 

Wanda International Cinemas, one of China's leading cinema companies, is estimated to be suffering the most, with losses of around 1.5 billion yuan, said the report. 

"We could only reopen after receiving a reopening notice from local governments. As far as I know, we don't have a reopening plan by now given the current epidemic situation," a customer service worker at Wanda International Cinemas told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

Some cinemas have started online sales business to subsidize employee salaries and house rent. Some local authorities have also launched subsidy policies for cinema lines.  

For example, Authorities in East China's Jiangsu Province allocated 10 million yuan as interest subsidies for local film producers and lowered house rent for producers and cinemas.

Proper timing?

The Global Times found on the Chinese ticket platform Taopiaopiao that the next film scheduled to be released in the Chinese mainland is on March 6. But the proper reopening timing that industrial observers and employees have predicted is far later than early March. 

"Based on the current epidemic situation, maybe no new case will be reported in March, but we could really relax only if there is no new report for 28 days," Shi Wenxue, a Beijing-based film critic, told the Global Times. 

Shi estimated that audiences would come back to cinemas in late April or early May at the earliest. He said that some cinemas may postpone reopening until audiences return to a certain level. 

Chinese director Jia Zhangke, who is attending the 70th Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), told the media that people would not want to go to cinemas in the next month. "They won't come back until June or August," he said.

According to a poll on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, more than 60,000 respondents opposed reopening cinemas at present while only thousands were in favour.